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"The Natural Navigator" by Tristan Gooley

Friday, February 25, 2011; 11:43 AM

NATURE

THE NATURAL NAVIGATOR

A Watchful Explorer's Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill

By Tristan Gooley The Experiment. 296 pp. $16.95

Before GPSes, people navigated by the stars, the wind and shadows on the ground. Tristan Gooley, an English adventurer, shows how it's done in "The Natural Navigator."

This fascinating book is filled with surprising facts, including one that will eventually spell the end to the single bit of knowledge that most people have about natural navigating. In 10,000 years, Polaris, the old reliable compass of the night, will have moved out of position and no longer be the north star. That job will go to Deneb. Elsewhere, Gooley points out that deciduous trees in the northern hemisphere often have a southern tilt to their canopies. He likens the "heaviness" to a checkmark. The tilt reflects the tree's effort to have its leaves capture more of the sun's rays.

The book is so full of helpful tips that some paragraphs will need a second read; otherwise, one could get lost trying to figure out east from west, follow sea currents and decipher sand-dune shapes. The planet Venus once saved Gooley from being lost in the woods by appearing in the southwest. It "gave me the confidence to cut through some dark woods," he writes. "Finding directions from the stars is great, but the beacon-friendliness of Venus on a night like that, announcing itself through even the tangled black yew branches, was joyous."

- Timothy R. Smith

smitht@washpost.com

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